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California Sets Nation's Strictest Oil/NatGas Methane Emission Rules

California air quality regulators on Thursday adopted the nation's toughest standards for oil and natural gas production, transmission, distribution and storage operations as a key tool in the state's efforts to counteract climate change.

The action -- unprecedented among states and the federal government -- was part of a broader effort approved by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), outlined as the state's Short-lived Climate Pollutant Reduction Strategy (SLCP), which addresses the super pollutants black carbon, fluorinated gases and methane.

CARB  board members have long called for addressing the methane leaks associated with oil/gas operations as a way to attack short-lived climate pollutants, including methane (CH-4), which have been classified as among the most harmful emissions to both human health and global climate. Environmental groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) have pounced on theoil/gas operations in the state for their methane leaks.

A number of environmental groups, led by EDF, hailed the CARB action, saying that the new rules, combined with ones established by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), should reduce methane emissions up to 45% from both new and existing oil/gas operations.

EDF's Tim O'Connor, director of the group’s California oil/gas program, called the CARB actions "common sense energy policy," adding that reducing the oil/gas industry's emissions is "one of the most affordable ways to minimize climate pollution, protect public health and ensure companies operate responsibly." A Southern California Gas Co. (SoCalGas) spokesperson praised CARB for its multiple actions aimed at creating cleaner air, one of which should encourage more use of natural gas in vehicular transportation, particularly in the heavy-duty sector.

The SLCP strategy is part of a larger framework embodied in CARB’s proposed 2030 scoping plan, which includes the state's cap-and-trade program, mobile source strategy, advanced clean car program, the renewable portfolio standard (for power generation), and low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS). LCFS is viewed as a potential boost for natural gas vehicles, particularly renewable natural gas and heavy-duty fleets.

CARB said its new SLCP regulations are aimed at reducing methane leaks from oil/gas operations by requiring emissions-capture technology and stricter monitoring/reporting requirements as a means of "isolating and fixing" the leaks more quickly. The new rules are slated to be fully effective in 2020.

According to CARB, the SLCP pollutants make up only about 12% of the state's greenhouse gas emissions, but strong actions to reduce them are expected to help reduce global warming by as much as 40%. Similarly, the major sources of methane emissions don't come from oil/gas operations, but from agriculture, with 55% tied to livestock from the manure produced by the state's large dairies.

"The SLCP strategy calls for capturing methane from manure at large dairies, pursuing opportunities to reduce methane emissions from enteric fermentation, significantly reducing disposal of organics in landfills, and reducing methane emissions from oil/gas operations," the CARB spokesperson said.

Countering national criticism of methane rules as job killers, EDF's O'Connor said rules such as the ones adopted by CARB and the CPUC create jobs. "There are already 30 companies in California alone that specialize in emission reductions, and that is only a small part of the overall sector," O'Connor said.

California's new regulations are the first major environmental regulations since the Trump administration took power, O'Connor said, and they may be an indication of what is to come at the state level elsewhere.

"If the federal government won't protect the people and the environment from oil/gas pollution, it has to be up to the states to do so," he said.

At the end of last year's state legislative session, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law SB 1383, which was said to have the nation’s toughest restrictions on methane and other super pollutants. Brown at the time said the state's restrictions eventually could help cut the rate of global warming in half by 2050.

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